Book explores what made Gavrilo Princip, the man who ignited the great war

Gavrilo Princip's act of violence was the spark that set off the first world war. A new tome delves into his life and motives, writes Christopher Clark

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm

The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brough the World to War
by Tim Butcher
4.5 stars

At about 10.45am on June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip fired twice at point-blank range into the car bearing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie Chotek.

The first bullet tore through the collar of Ferdinand's uniform, boring into his neck and opening his jugular vein. The second, aimed at Oskar Potiorek, the Austrian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, went wide, probably because members of the crowd were already trying to restrain the assassin. The bullet flew through the door of the car and was deflected into the abdomen of the archduke's wife. She was already falling into a coma as the driver reversed the car away from the scene and sped towards the governor's residence. The archduke remained conscious for long enough to address his wife with words that would soon be reported across the world: "Sophie, Sophie don't die, stay alive for our children." Within half an hour, both were dead.

We begin to see the world through Princip's eyes. These were the hills he climbed and the paths he walked

Amazingly, little is known of the then 19-year-old Bosnian Serb whose shots triggered the escalations that brought war to Europe. Princip hailed from western Bosnia, a land of harsh terrain and virtually nonexistent infrastructure, crossed by swift watercourses and closed in by mountains. These are the backwoods of the western Balkans, the vukojebina, the land, to use a colourful local expression, "where the wolves f***". The story of how Princip left his home, of his journey from model schoolboy to disaffected teenager, militant nationalist and political assassin, has remained in shadow partly because the paper trail is so meagre, and partly because his biography, located at one of the inflection points of world history, has been warped from the beginning by the forces his action helped to unleash.

In this book, a masterpiece of historical empathy and evocation, Tim Butcher goes in search of the person behind the myths. Like Ernest Renan, the biographer of Jesus who roamed the valleys and villages of 19th-century Galilee in search of clues to the boyhood and family life of his subject, Butcher acquaints himself with Princip by walking in the young man's footsteps from his birthplace in the tiny hamlet of Obljaj in western Bosnia to Sarajevo and across the border to Belgrade, the capital city of neighbouring Serbia. What results is an extraordinary journey through landscapes and communities harrowed by history.

The book opens with a surreal encounter: in Obljaj, Butcher finds surviving members of the Princip clan and mines the archives of family lore in conversations with relatives whose inherited recollections of Princip's family life are uncanny in their detail - from stories about his relationships with other children in the area, to accounts of his behaviour at school and the purity of his desire to serve his nation. These tales, Butcher observes, "are polished in the retelling, a chain strung with fact, memory and myth, reassuring for later generations in its completeness and circularity". Whether or not they are true in the historical sense, these snippets of memory establish a sense of intimacy with Princip's ghostly presence in the place of his birth.

Only when Butcher begins his hike through the rough country of western Bosnia does the brilliance of the book's underlying idea become clear. We begin to see the world through Princip's eyes. These were the hills he climbed and the paths he walked. The flinty scree that cuts into Butcher's hiking boots also moved under Princip's feet as he walked to Sarajevo. Princip was, like most Bosnian teenagers and like Butcher himself, an avid fisherman. The sparkling streams that make Butcher twitch with thoughts of trout must also have caught Princip's eye. The stony ground, the bitter nocturnal frosts, the hardscrabble life of the people who still eke out a living there: all this says much about the world that made Princip. Could it be, Butcher wonders, that the isolation and self-reliance of these mountain communities encouraged them to see neighbours as rivals for scarce resources, or even enemies, rather than as fellow citizens?

As Butcher stalks Princip, he finds abundant evidence of the distrust and hatred that still divide the ethnic groups of the western Balkans. Approaching Bosnian hamlets from open country, he is greeted by baying guard dogs and dour, watchful faces. The UN maps he uses are sprinkled with mine warnings. Butcher stops to chat with a Bosnian Muslim from Vitez whose Bosnian Croat neighbours were the soul of generosity and decency - until one night, in April 1993, when they came with guns and drove his family out of the village. The memory of Princip is gradually submerged in the jangling echoes of more recent conflicts.

The fascination of this book lies in the way Butcher's quest for Princip unearths so many other memories - Bosnian resistance to the Austrian occupation of 1878, the pervasive violence of the first world war, the partisan war of 1941-1945 and the traumatic sieges, skirmishes and massacres of the 1990s. Amid such a cacophony of memory and trauma, the weak signal of Princip's brief life is easily drowned out. In one of the drollest passages of the book, Butcher attends a concert at Banja Luka by the British rock band Franz Ferdinand. Projected on to the screen behind them is a vast image of Gavrilo Princip - a wry joke. Yet when Butcher asks the young Bosnians in the arena who they think he is, none seem to know.

In the final chapters, Butcher moves from memory to history as he retraces the last years, months and days of Princip's life. His key theme is Princip's deepening alienation from the Austro-Hungarian authorities, reflected in plummeting exam results, a crisis in school attendance and, finally, in the decision to continue his education in Belgrade. Here, Butcher follows the argument laid out by Vladimir Dedijer (a Bosnian Serb politician and writer in Tito's Yugoslavia) and other Yugoslav accounts, according to which Princip's radicalisation was a response to the poverty and oppression suffered by all the Bosnian South-Slavs.

This is the only point at which I found myself dissenting from his analysis. The book reproduces the traditional South-Slavic critique of Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia. The Bosnian Diet established by the Austrians after the annexation of 1908 is dismissed as a "quisling parliament". The decision to take the life of the archduke is framed as an act of understandable desperation against a ruthless enemy.

By contrast, the links with Belgrade are largely excluded from the field of vision. Butcher has surprisingly little to say about Princip and his comrades' long sojourn in Belgrade, where they came into contact with the Serbian nationalist networks that would later supply them with their pistols and bombs. Yet there is good reason to suppose that it was in Belgrade that Princip and his comrades were radicalised: "After he came to Belgrade," Princip later said of one his fellow assassins, "he too took up the same principles". Butcher touches on the role played by "Apis" (Dragutin Dimitrijevi), the head of Serbian military intelligence, but dismisses as implausible Apis's own written claim to have co-ordinated the plot to kill the archduke. Sundered from their broader Serbian context, the assassinations become a problem the Austrians created for themselves. And Princip's act of murder becomes - as the Yugoslav words on the plaque commemorating the assassination in Sarajevo used to say - the "first step into Yugoslav liberty".

Whether or not one shares Butcher's view of these issues this book is a tour de force.

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